The life of a Division III college baseball player isn’t glamorous. A typical season includes plenty of bus trips, fast-food meals and sparse media coverage.

The Concordia University Chicago baseball team, arguably the best-kept sports secret in River Forest, is doing a lot this season to change the perception of Division III baseball. In fact, how many college baseball programs (any level) can claim 38 wins, a return trip to the division World Series, and a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter? Although the question is rhetorical, the answer is: Concordia.

Eat your hearts out, UCLA, Texas and Miami.

Indeed, the Cougars have consolidated their noteworthy run in 2017 to the Division III Baseball Championship (more commonly known as the World Series) with a return trip this weekend. Concordia (38-13) punched its ticket to Appleton, Wisconsin by winning four of five games in the Midwest Regional.

The most memorable game occurred against Bethany Lutheran College. Trailing the Vikings 12-8 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Cougars scored five runs to pull out a 13-12 victory. The improbable comeback was capped by two runs scoring on a wild pitch — and subsequent ESPN highlight.

“We were on five consecutive ESPN SportsCenters showing the highlight of the two runs scoring on a wild pitch,” Concordia coach Mike Stawski said. “That was really neat for all of our players. Everybody dreams about being on SportsCenter. I texted my wife and told her I was in the left corner of the screen. That was my four seconds of fame.”

While Stawski and the Cougars are not household names, they are definitely establishing Concordia as an elite program in Division III baseball. The Cougars have a 68-26 record under Stawski.

The team is largely composed of players from the Chicago area. However, the roster also includes players from other parts of Illinois, along with Indiana, Colorado, Arizona, and even Medellin, Colombia.

“We recruit nationally,” Stawski said. “We have three players from Colombia. We kind of stumbled upon them 18 months ago. They were at a junior college in California before they came here. They are three of my favorite people in the world because they appreciate everything. They are playing baseball, getting an education and making a dream come true for their families.”

In reality, essentially all the Concordia players are living their dream of playing baseball at a high level.

“We have 35 guys on the roster who are playing for the love of the game,” Stawski said. “Nothing against Division I players, but some of those guys are going to schools like Texas or Arizona State for free. They have no skin in the game and they go to those schools often for another reason, like getting drafted.”

Stawski believes a common misconception is the disparity of talent between Division I and Division III.

“We played Illinois, who was ranked 12th in the country at the time, and lost 9-6 on their field,” Stawski said. “The level of play across all three levels of college baseball is closer than it is in football or basketball.”

A return trip to the DIII World Series is a huge accomplishment for any program.

“There are almost 400 teams at our level so it takes a lot to get to the World Series,” Stawski said. “The last two teams to win the World Series didn’t make it back to the national tournament the following year. For us to get here the last two years is impressive.”

Pieces in place

Of course, the achievement is more reasonable with talent. The Cougars boast an abundance of skilled players. Senior pitcher Mike Formella (6-1, 2.10 ERA) is an All-American who anchors a senior-laden pitching staff.

“Although he started in the final game of the regional, Formella is primarily a reliever,” Stawski said. “In 23 appearances, he has one start. He can pitch back-to-back days, too.”

Right-fielder Joe Silva (.377, 38 RBIs, .458 on-base percentage) was named the Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference Player of the Year and second baseman Mitch Wilson (.347, 41 RBIs) has the most hits in program history.

“We are going to rely on those three guys pretty heavily [in the World Series],” Stawski said. “There’s no doubt our expectations are high. We’re one of the teams people are looking at to have a run at the World Series because we have been highly ranked all season and we are one of two teams returning from last year.”

Other key contributors include leadoff man Jose Mercado (.357, team-high 39 stolen bases), Keegan Tyrell (4 HR, 39 RBIs) and Brandon Connor (.329, 3 HR, 28 RBIs). In the rotation, Brian Musielak (6-2, 3.34 ERA) and Alex Meyers (6-2, 2.70) provide quality arms. The Cougars have a 3.76 ERA and hit .312 overall.

Stawski mentioned a player with local ties. Junior catcher Justin Rodriguez, who is hitting .333 with 12 RBIs as a part-time starter, graduated from Fenwick in 2015.

Rodriguez, a two-sport star with the Friars (baseball/football), played alongside several star athletes at Fenwick, including Robert Spillane and Ryan Smith in football and Quinn Snarskis, Gino Cavalieri and Kevin Forde in baseball. Rodriguez enjoyed several deep runs in the postseason with both teams at Fenwick.

At the collegiate level, he’s surrounded by talent once again.

“When you’re in high school, you’re used to being ‘that guy,'” Rodriguez said. “When you come to Concordia, everybody was ‘that guy’ in high school. Everybody competes at a high level.

“I believe every single one of us could be a Division I player,” he added, “but we came to Concordia to win and make something happen in the world of Division III baseball. It’s unheard of to go to the World Series two years in a row, so we want to take advantage of the opportunity and really put Concordia on a national level.”

The Cougars have won games this season in a variety of ways. Their success is attributable to a diversified approach in all facets of the game.

“Our offense has kind of taken the reins and led us all season,” Stawski said. “Our pitching staff has six seniors. Our best arms are in the bullpen. We believe that’s when you win games over the final three innings. And we play good defense.”

Additionally, Concordia is the top base-stealing team in the country with 151 steals in 51 games.

The players have also done well in the classroom.

“We are academics first. The team has a grade point average of 3.25,” Stawski said. “The guys juggle two full-time jobs here: school and baseball.”

The Cougars faced Swarthmore (37-9) from Pennsylvania in its opener at the World Series (after deadline). The eight-team, double-elimination tournament includes Randolph-Macon (Virginia), Misericordia (Pennsylvania), Concordia (Illinois), Swarthmore (Pennsylvania), Wooster (Ohio) and Texas Lutheran (Seguin), Oswego State (New York) and UT Tyler (Texas).

“I hope when people talk about this season 10 or 20 years from now, they will talk about how our guys attacked the game and had fun doing it,” Stawski said. “That will be the legacy of this group.”

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...